Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Vinyl Retentive: James Brown

In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.

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James Brown And The Famous Flames

"I Don't Mind" b/w "Love Don't Love Nobody"

King Records, 1961

Format: 7-inch single

File Under: The punch before the funk

Key track: "Love Don't Love Nobody"

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Like most people, I got into James Brown 'cause of the funk. Around 1991, my buddy Frank–one of my musical mentors–had already gone from having a foot-high blond Mohawk in high school to loving Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler. Frank had always been a couple steps ahead of me in the music-taste department–and so, with no small amount of melodramatic gravity, he sat me down one day to listen to his latest obsession: Star Time, a just-released box set of classics by James Brown. (Please pardon in advance the CD-centricty of this Vinyl Retentive entry–we'll get to the vinyl eventually, scout's honor.)

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Right before Frank's funk epiphany, I'd been diving headlong into '60s music–but it was mostly of the Lester Bangs-approved garage-rock and proto-punk variety. My vintage R&B; education had been woefully lax. I heard The Underdogs' raw version of "Love's Gone Bad" on one of the Nuggets LPs far before Chris Clark's Motown original. I loved The MC5's ragged take on "Ramblin' Rose," but had no idea who Ted Taylor was. In fact, at that point I knew more about Brown from his being sampled and namechecked by Public Enemy and, uh, Pop Will Eat Itself (whose "Not Now James, We're Busy" I witnessed in person in 1989 at a defunct venue called Rock Island in Denver–the same year the admittedly cruddy clip below was filmed).

In short: Like much of the world, then and now, I thought I knew James Brown. But I still had yet to grasp the enormity of his contribution to, well, a pretty hefty chunk of Western culture. Star Time changed that. As I stood there in Frank's apartment–I remember distinctly that he played "Mother Popcorn" for me first, followed by the whiplashing "Funky Drummer"–my comprehension of funk ballooned like The Grinch's shriveled little heart. I borrowed the box set from Frank and spent weeks just wallowing in it. But there was an odd component of Star Time, a puzzle piece that didn't seem to quite fit. Disc One: the pre-funk years.

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The funny thing is, the first disc of the Star Time box was relatively similar to the garagey '60s stuff I was immersed in at the time. Besides oldies-station staples like "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag"–the transitionally funky tracks that closed Disc One–the song that hit me immediately was the 1961 single "I Don't Mind." Okay, it might've hit me because I already owned The Who's cover of it. Still, it's a killer song, a perfect example of the hoarse, smoldering ballad that typified Brown's early work.

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A few years later I was digging in a used record store and found a beat-up, 50-cent copy of "I Don't Mind." James Brown 45s aren't hard to come by–he was, after all, one of the strongest and most consistent chart-masters in the history of pop–but I made a point of never passing one up. And "I Don't Mind" came with a bonus: the flip side, a vat of hot grease in song form titled "Love Don't Love Nobody." That title alone grabbed me, and Brown followed through accordingly: Over a demolishing beat and searing horns, he foregoes R&B;'s chronic bad-mouthing of villainous women and heads straight to the source–love itself, which Brown personifies, demonizes, and seems to be challenging to a boxing match or something. Like Little Richard rolling around Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite" in mud and broken glass, Brown tears into "Love Don't Love Nobody" and attacks that most exalted human emotion as if it were a virus–or, at the very least, a particularly vicious tapeworm.

There are only about three syllables in "Love Don't Love Nobody" where Brown's squealing grunt dips into the lower register he'd use for the rest of his career. And there's not a trace of funk–it's pure, four-on-the-floor, beat-the-fuck-out-of-your-instruments R&B.; The late '50s and early '60s were a crazy time for the future Godfather Of Soul; he was still perfecting that recipe of ego, testosterone, pride, vulnerability, and superhuman showmanship that would one day become his cartoonish public image. Back when I discovered James Brown, I was predisposed toward the rockin' style of his early stuff like "Love Don't Love Nobody," but his self-assured and fully-realized über-funk of the mid-'60s and beyond overshadowed all that came before. It still does. And that's kind of shame. If James Brown had somehow never lived to become a cultural icon, a template for hip-hop, and the punch line of a PWEI song, scorchers like "Love Don't Love Nobody" might be even more overlooked than they already are. Don't get me wrong–funk is the bait that got me hooked on James Brown. But there's enough soul in the man's training wheels and castoffs to nourish me for a lifetime.

Current whereabouts: Although James Brown is deceased in the strictly physical sense, he lives on in millions of lifted riffs and sampled beats–not to mention, what, a couple hundred illegitimate kids?

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Availability: Depending on the condition, a copy of the "I Don't Mind"/"Love Don't Love Nobody" 45 can be had on eBay for anywhere from $1.50 to $12. The 1961 album on which they appear–his fourth, The Amazing James Brown–is currently out of print in the States. Both songs, though, are readily available on the recent CD anthology The Singles Volume 2: 1960-1963.

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